Practically the first thing I read this morning was Adrienne LaFrance’s article A Corrected History of the Typo. You must read it — it’s an excellent little collection of sources and thoughts on errors and corrections in text, with appearances by Spenser and Milton. I’ve long had an attraction for errata but never really thought about why; LaFrance’s article explained it for me. Reading a text alongside its own corrections, “the reader encounters an added layer of richness in having to reconcile the two terms, almost such that it’s ‘impossible to read one without the other’”:
“What is created is an oscillation … which performs a sense of error as both eternally present — something that happens to books, including books about the necessity of error — and morally, and hermeneutically, productive.”
The article goes back as far as the dawn of printed books; but it recalled for me the earlier birth of errata (in the West, at least), during the days of the medieval scribe. These early calligraphers made plenty of mistakes, and left plenty of amusing endnotes and marginalia in their attempts to clean up after themselves. In Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique, Marc Drogin devotes a short chapter to Titivillus, “the patron demon of calligraphy,” who was originally supposed to collect transcription errors, which were to be read out against erring scribes on the Day of Judgment.
Errors, revisions and printing ambiguities give life to a text, adding new ways of enjoying and exploring it. For example, printing errors and alterations have made the original text of Shakespeare’s plays impossible to pin down; but the uncertainty now surrounding those texts has opened up new possibilities, readings and interpretations for those works, and is no small part of what keeps both scholars and performers coming back to them. Many of these interpretations may even be at odds with each other, and yet are equally valid, collectively possessing a kind of value that comes not from certainty but from possibility.
And not only do we enjoy exploring the errata of old texts, there seems to be some sense among many writers that the errors and corrections in the stuff we’re churning out today are worth preserving for future study — that they are the raw material for insights that later generations will be able to mine and have the distance to appreciate. It’s why practices have emerged among bloggers to make revisions transparent. And I suspect this is why we see the regrettable but recurring interest in version-control systems by writers of prose.
I’ve always had an errata section on this site; it’s a convenient, out-of-the-way place to put minor notes about “the printing” of these web pages, even if those notes often don’t involve corrections of the kind you’d see in old books.